Art photo in Uzbekistan: Negative outweighs positive
Fragment of photo "By the Window" by Umida Akhmedova. Maidanak
Photo festival "Edge of Ages" took place at the Metenkov's House (Museum of Photography) in Yekaterinburg on the eve of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit slated for June 15-16. Photos on display picture nature, culture, and everyday life in Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, China).
Five photographers form Tashkent and Bukhara represented Uzbekistan - Umida Akhmedova, Ernest Kurtveliyev, Leonid Kudreiko, Shavkat Boltayev, and Zilola Saidova. Ferghana.Ru correspondent approached them for comments on the state of affairs with photography in Uzbekistan.
Ernest Kurtveliyev: I took up photography in the USSR, back when it was still necessary to use film, chemical reagents, and so on... Actually, everyone who took photos then are comfortable with a both technologies these days - the old and the modern digital one. Modern photographers lack these skills typical of their old school colleagues. They have digital cameras that permit instant analysis of the shot. On the one hand, it's an asset. Lots of young photographers nowadays only need some PC skills to get by. On the other, the ease with which materials are processed now made photography a mass hobby so that it is no longer an art. At least, sometimes. Availability of Photoshop costs photos their documentary value. Documentary photos mirror reality. I refuse to accept any paste-up practices when, for example, panorama is taken from one photo and clouds from another. The way I see it, documentary photo is about catching "the truth".
"Street Scene" by Zilola Zaidova. Bukhara
Genre photography is unappreciated these days, and this state of affairs cannot help affecting its level in general. It is photos of weddings and suchlike events that are in high demand, and they have little to do with what genuine photography is about.
Umida Akhmedova: Professional photographers in Uzbekistan are less in demand than they are, say, in Russia, Kazakhstan, or Kyrgyzstan. Distrusting professionals and probably trying to save the cost, lots of organizations make their own photos for billboards, sometimes even using ordinary cameras. As a result, their billboards look positively ugly. The Uzbeks have a proverb: even sparrows should be cut up by butchers. That goes for photography too. Leave it to professionals.
From "Sukok" series by Leonid Kudreiko
There is one other nuance. Unlike their colleagues in other countries, photographers here in Tashkent have nowhere to publish their works. We merely organize kind of parties usually attended by our friends, acquaintances, and so on. I'm under the impression that appreciation of photography is at quite a low level in all post-Soviet countries. (Save for the Baltic states probably because they are geographically the closest to Europe and appreciation of this art has always been different there.) This is probably why people never take photographers seriously. Here is an example. My neighbor is a girl about to finish a medical college. Once I told her of a world-renowned photographer and the girl was truly amazed. It was beyond her understanding. She is used to thinking that fame is only for singers or artists, but not for photographers. In a word, laymen regard photographers as people who take their photos for passports or photos of weddings and other similar events.
All the same, Uzbek professional photographers do what they can and even try to participate in contests whenever possible. Last year was quite productive. We had exhibitions in St.Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, and Bishkek. It will be nice for Uzbekistan, the country we represent abroad, to support its photographers. Getting to the international level without state support is extremely difficult.
"After Classes" by Ernest Kurtveliyev. Muinak
Ferghana.Ru: And what should this support come down to?
Ernest Kurtveliyev: Organization of photo contests with help from state funds and organizations will be a stimulus we all need.
Umida Akhmedova: Yes, state support is needed. This is how photo contests are arranged these days: photos are never returned to their owners and copyright laws are never observed. Awards are something else... In the long run, it dawns on you that someone just decided to put together a calendar or something like that and used this alleged contest to lure photographers. Serious professionals respect themselves too much to participate in events of this sort.
Even foreign organizations are sometimes sloppy in organization of photo contests. Catalogues are put together in a hasty manner - the way it was with catalogue of the photos picturing ecological catastrophe of the Aral Sea. Since they chose to bring up a problem of this magnitude and importance, organizers should have handpicked several photographers and sent them to the site to make photos. After that, photographers and ecologists would have chosen photos for the catalogue and exhibition depicting the Aral tragedy.
From "Central Asian Gypsies" series by Shavkat Boltayev
Ernest Kurtveliyev: Selection of photos is thoroughly unprofessional. What else can we expect when decision-making is left to a girl who does not know the first thing about photography? Because of it, catalogues of absolutely primitive works are published and it is on their basis that others judge Uzbek photography afterwards. People see these unprofessional works and underestimate our photographers' true potential. Small wonder. All booklets, posters, and billboards are really primitive.
Real masters do not have to rely on expensive gear. Alexander Shepelin for example is using equipment of Soviet vintage. And yet, he never ceases to amaze us with his masterpieces. His projects are never expensive. And people who can afford sophisticated gear and all that are often unable to do anything worthwhile with it.
Ferghana.Ru: How many professional photographers are there in Uzbekistan?
Ernest Kurtveliyev: The term "professional photographer" is comprehensive, you know. One has to be a professional even when he only makes photos of weddings. We are talking a certain circle of people. There are photographers making ads, there are photo journalists. We already mentioned genre photography, I believe - it is not what many people bother with because it is thoroughly under-appreciated. This is why some acclaimed professionals are forced to change their style. They turn commercial in order to survive. Not everyone at all has the willpower to be true... Anyway, there are some young photographers who will reach a certain level of professionalism in a year or two. Fortunately, there is a whole young generation of photographers who like genre and documentary photography.
From "Sukok" series by Leonid Kudreiko
Leonid Kudreiko: All in all, photography and photographers are thoroughly undervalued in Uzbekistan, these days. There is but a small group of men now still persistently trying to take photography seriously, the way it deserves. I've been a professional photographer for quarter of a century. Things were relatively fine until approximately 1995. These days, however, there are but several magazines a professional photographer may approach yet. I quit one of magazines in Tashkent not long ago because of their attitude toward photography. Editors of this magazine were absolutely unprofessional. What's the point of remaining a professional among the absurdity typical of the Uzbek media? There are no professionals there anymore. Editors are opinionated people without the necessary education. Perhaps, I would have learned to take it easy were it not for my lengthy experience in magazines and newspapers. These days, most materials that we encounter in newspapers and magazines are lifted off the Internet. Just open any paper and you'll see what I mean.
So, making money is difficult nowadays. I'm compelled to take photos for ads. It is a respected and highly paid vocation in other countries. In Uzbekistan, however, I often hear from directors and administrators, "Come on! Why would I pay you anything when I can easily get a digital camera and make photos myself?" It's impossible to convince these people otherwise. Unfortunately, they constitute a majority, these days.
I'm not saying that things are so despairingly bleak, but bleak they are. We do something, we take photos... All equipment is available at world prices. Very many cannot afford equipment at $3,000-4,000 and waiting for the editorial office to buy it is pointless too. Besides, editorial offices themselves are impoverished more often than not. They make do with cheap cameras worth $150 or so.
"Moslem Circumcision" by Zilola Saidova. Bukhara
Neither are there any colleges for photographers. Sure, there is the faculty of cinematography and photography, but five minutes with its graduates convinced me that it's all a sham. Our own pupils know more than these graduates do. What they teach youngsters there is utterly beyond me. That's why only a few are truly professional photographers.
Anyway, I'm not going to abandon photography. Photography is what I gave so much to, it's what I want to do in life.
Ferghana.Ru: Still, there must be some demand for professional photographers. You did participate in "Edge of Ages" and in other international projects, right?
Leonid Kudreiko: Nobody cares about photography here in Uzbekistan. I even heard some state officials asking "Is this what you show abroad?" after a look at our works. Fortunately, screening for exhibitions is never draconian here. On the other hand, they never select photos that depict real life. Children smiling into cameras are all they select for exhibitions.
"Sacred Bukhara" by Shavkat Boltayev
Life is life, however, and photography ought to depict it. Every now and then, however, they begin looking for political undertones in photos and trying to squeeze photography into certain standards. It is wrong to make photography a weapon wielded by politicians. Photography is about depiction of life as it is - without painting it in rosy colors or, on the contrary, painting it black. I repeat, photography is what I want to do in life.
We had an interesting exhibition in St.Petersburg in February 2009. The audience was quite impressive which pleased us of course. Reception was fine. Any trip abroad allows us to make new contacts which is always useful. The Photography Center from Nizhny Novgorod contacted us after the exhibition in Yekaterinburg. Last year, we participated in an international exhibition in Bishkek. Organized under the UN aegis, it was focused on problems of Central Asia. Our colleagues from other Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) participated in it too. All of that was fairly interesting.
Ferghana.Ru: Would you say professional photographers are better off in neighbor countries?
Leonid Kudreiko: At least financially, they are certainly better off in Kazakhstan. Situation in Kyrgyzstan is slightly better than it is here. Making a name there is easier for young photographers. Prominent exhibitions, however, are mostly for people with years worth of experience, for professionals. Young photographers participate in them but rarely.
"Baisun Dreamer" by Umida Akhmedova
Ferghana.Ru: How would you appraise the relations with the Photography Center here in Tashkent?
Leonid Kudreiko: Not a single structure in Uzbekistan can be said to support professional photographers. Yes, the Photography Center in Tashkent is one of the sites where some events do take place but this structure mostly supports amateurs. There is a certain circle here in Uzbekistan whose members participate in international art photo exhibitions. They owe it to Umida who regularly scans the Internet for information on what is planned. These people are mostly from Panorama, a photo club that functioned in Tashkent in the Soviet Union. We met there Fridays. People of all ages from teenagers to pensioners brought their photos to Panorama and discussed them. I came to Panorama for the first time in 1983. I remember what impression its very atmosphere made on me then. There were special classes then, there were contests. Best photos were selected for contests in Moscow and Leningrad. We had contacts with other similar clubs elsewhere. There were everyone from writers to doctors to scientists in Panorama, all of them amateur photographers.
Umida Akhmedova: Nucleus of professional Uzbek photography was formed in Panorama - Victor An, Vladimir Zhirnov, Marat Batlabayev, late Anatoly Rakhmbayev, and very many others. Actually, some of these men are known way beyond Uzbekistan. Some of them live and work here, others left Uzbekistan. Panorama was run and managed by the legendary Mikhail Shtein. All of the club existed on his energy and administrative savvy. Shtein emigrated when the Soviet Union collapsed. We got out of touch, unfortunately.
Leonid Kudreiko: He was something indeed. With his long beard and hair, Shtein looked like a hermit from the Bible. He was always in a hurry, he was constantly pulling at this beard of his. Shtein could leap from the chair and fire off a fiery tirade any moment. People who did not know him all too well were inevitably flabbergasted.
Umida Akhmedova: It becomes clear now how many good photographers Panorama reared. Shtein was our guru, he could instill hope and confidence in the young, but he was also prone to speaking his mind. I won a silver medal at the Soviet Union photo contest dedicated to the 40th Anniversary of Victory in 1985, and I know that I owe it to Shtein. A team from Moscow had come here then to select photos for the exhibition, and Shtein helped them with it. They considered literally heaps of photos... Shtein was always full of plans and ideas, he was a locomotive force in Uzbek photography. I hope that he will read it and contact us again. Misha, hey, we love you and remember you. We miss you!
"Funeral" (from "Bukhara Jews" series) by Shavkat Boltayev
These days, both professionals and amateurs meet at the Movie Museum Fridays. It is like an informal club where professional share their experience and knowledge with beginners. Curator Oleg Karpov, himself a photographer, tried to sum it up for Ferghana.Ru.
Oleg Karpov: When photographers are many but disunited, the impression is that there are no photographers at all. What Shtein did was try and introduce some sort of structure and band these people together. He succeeded. The Movie Union and Artistic Union, legacy of the late USSR, are dead structures. They are but empty husks that only imitate life. Instead of serving as a nucleus for unification, they only split people.
Consider the Photography Center, for example. Divide-and-rule is the only principle it cares about. Wedges are driven between people, some people are bought, and so on. All of that results in conflicts over nothing. At the same time, functionaries choose and pamper "court" photographers.
It never occurs to very many photographers meanwhile that there are common tasks that cannot be handled by individuals. There are exhibitions where teamwork is needed. For example, it took a large team indeed to participate in the last year exhibition in St.Petersburg. It was Bukhara photographers who had been initially invited to participate but they realized that they alone couldn't make it. As a matter of fact, our colleagues from St.Petersburg admitted that they, too, were divided. They, too, have all sorts of informal centers and clubs for photographers and artists but they poll efforts when the situation calls for it.
As for young Uzbek photographers, there are truly gifted men among them. Varvara Soboleva, Iljer Nematov (he had had an exhibition at the Victor Hugo Center in France, and he participated in the exhibition in St.Petersburg too), Alexander Barkovsky well known in Uzbekistan and abroad... Barkovsky is number one in art photography these days. There are no others even remotely like him. There are some gifted men at the Benkov Art College and at the Institute of Architecture. Actually, this latter is much better than the Theater Institute whose camera operator faculty is still using obsolete Soviet curriculum.
"Old Mullah" by Ernest Kurtveliyev. Bukhara
As for Uzbek photography in general, I believe that it is currently better than Kazakh or Kyrgyz. Photographers there are mostly commercial. Unlike us here, fewer and fewer people in Kazakhstan, for example, are prepared to work without pay. Underestimated and underpaid, our photographers probably know that they will get nothing in any event and therefore work for themselves. It is known meanwhile that professional photographers who neglect to take photos just for the fun of it or for themselves lose the touch.
Ferghana.Ru: And what awaits Uzbek photography?
Oleg Karpov: Commercialization is one thing we will be spared, particularly due to the crisis that has not even reached us yet. One things is clear: they are not going to pay photographers here any better then they pay nowadays. It is not Kazakhstan where photos for ads are in high demand and where lots of printed materials are published. Waiting for recognition from the West is pointless because nobody wants us there. Besides, Western markets are protected by their respective states from invasion by the likes of us. We here live without support or protection. Publications are but sporadic. Amateurs will continue taking photos because equipment is easily available - there are cameras, there are cell phones with cameras in them... It is people who believe that they have a knack that usually buy more expensive gear. In any event, prospects for photographers are fairly dim. It is not a sphere where money is made. Even so, however, photography as art will live.